My Compliments

My Compliments

As you may have guessed from previous posts, I am utterly fascinated by the social and cultural differences between the twenty-first century and the nineteenth. One would expect these things to be more clear when reading Austen’s works, but she could have had no way of predicting how society would change, so she couldn’t possibly have anticipated what future generations didn’t know, not to mention that she probably didn’t have any clue that we would still be reading what she wrote hundreds of years later.

Upon my first reading of Pride and Prejudice, I took note of how caught up in physical appearance they were. Mrs. Bennet leads the way with her repeated proclamations of Jane’s beauty and Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst take it upon themselves to dissect the beauty and fashion of the Hertfordshire society. Similar themes are to be found throughout Austen’s works. This is hardly surprising; it’s human nature, after all. We all have an inherent preference for that which is beautiful. Pleasing shapes, proportions and colors quite naturally draw positive attention; so none of the obvious awareness of physical appearance surprised me.

Jane painted with broad strokes however, and our suppositions based on our own experiences fill in the rest. For example, the physical description of Darcy provided by Jane Austen only tells us that he is tall.  The conversation between Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Reynolds and Elizabeth in Chapter 43 of Pride and Prejudice also inform us that he is handsome. Since the name “Darcy” literally means “dark” or “dark one,” we might additionally add coloring to the mix and conclude that Mr. Darcy is “tall, dark and handsome.”

It took me awhile to realize those same broad strokes included some negative spaces — information that was missing because Jane simply had no way of knowing that it wouldn’t be obvious to us. So here it is: despite all the attention paid to fashion, hairstyles and symmetry of features, people simply didn’t compliment each other. Not verbally anyway, and certainly not outside the family circle. One’s sister or mother might note that you look very well, but although he raved about her beauty behind her back, Mr. Bingley never said to Jane, “You look quite angelic tonight my dear.”

Eventually, as I began to research, I came to understand that during the Regency era, to flatter or overtly admire a person was a serious social blunder. Compliments were paid, instead, by showing your approval through behavior and social acknowledgement. Invitations to dinners were reciprocal, as were morning calls and correspondence. Inquiring after the health and well-being of a person’s family was an attention that was perceived as complimentary, as was sending your regards or asking for an introduction.


When Lady Catherine came to Longbourn for the smack-down with Lizzy, she went through a series of anti-compliments. As the highest ranking woman in the room, even though it was the Bennet household, it was Lady Catherine’s prerogative to request an introduction to Mrs. Bennet, which she did not do. Through this awkwardness, Mrs. Bennet, was unfailingly polite and offered refreshments, with Lady Catherine rudely refused. She proceeded to criticize the house before she isolated and verbally abused Elizabeth. Her visit was concluded with this parting shot: “I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”


What an odd thing to say. “I send no compliments to your mother.” That was the point, however. Not only did Lady Catherine send no compliments to Mrs. Bennet, which would have been the gracious thing to do, but she made certain it was understood that it was no mere oversight. She didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding that her visit was anything other than an insult.

Caroline Bingley, on the other hand, takes the liberty of a relation when she praises Darcy’s speed of writing.  That Darcy rebuffed the compliment by denying its truth is illustrative of another virtue of the day. Modesty, when it came to one’s accomplishments was the expected response. This also explains why Elizabeth declares that she is not possessed of “false modesty” when it comes to her skills on the pianoforte. “False modesty” would be an all too common problem among her peers.


Austen does a fantastic job of using the compliment as a means to expose those who fail to understand the nuances of social graces, are insincere or are prone to flattery. Now that I understand the significance of explicitly stated compliments during that era, I take great enjoyment in being in on the joke. My favorite examples include Sir William’s exclamations over Elizabeth and Darcy’s skills on the dance floor, Mr. Collins’ boasting about composing compliments and Caroline Bingley’s fawning over Darcy.

Although it is no longer a social blunder to render an honest compliment, it can still be awkward to be on the receiving end. In such situations as these, we can learn a little something from Elizabeth Bennet and other Austen heroines. A simple thank you will generally suffice if there is nothing else to be said.

If you made it this far today the fact that you spent a few minutes of your time to read it is a compliment. If, you take a moment to share your thoughts on the topic, it is a great compliment. In return, I thank you and send my compliments to your mother.

41 Responses to My Compliments

  1. This is such a great insight, Diana! I love things like this, that put a new spin on characters’ interactions. Like Joana said, it’s almost an art form to set someone down and still be all proper politeness.

    I find it difficult to take compliments, too. My mother is quite humbled by your condescension in conveying your regards. lol

    • It truly was an art form that Austen had mastered.

      One of my favorite “compliments/zingers” in P&P is found at the end of Chapter 10, when Caroline is walking with Darcy in the shrubbery at Netherfield and teasing him about Elizabeth. They encounter Elizabeth and Louisa, and Louisa grabs onto Darcy’s free arm. Since the path is the width of three people, this leaves Elizabeth as the odd person out. Darcy acknowledges the slight, suggesting they move to a wider path but Elizabeth laughingly declines, saying “No, no; stay where you are. — You are charmingly group’d, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good bye.” She then runs away, rejoicing in her escape.

      When I first read P&P, I thought this was merely a brilliant maneuver to get away from Caro and Louisa, but it was so, so much more. The mention of “The picturesque” was a pop-culture reference of the day. There was a book written by William Gilpin that introduced the concept of “picturesque beauty.” His writing was influential in many of the massive landscaping projects that introduced constructed ruins and follies on estates. Paintings of that era often reflect the aesthetics he dictated. One of them was that three cows in a field was picturesque, while four was awkward. Now, if you re-read what Elizabeth said to them, you realize that she was, in fact, essentially calling them cows, even as she praised their appearance. Brilliant!

  2. LOL! I LOVE the last part. thank you for finding me worthy enough to send compliments to my mother too. 🙂 Yes. Yes. Yes. I LOVE this post. And agree wholeheartedly with it. It’s one of the things I loved most about Jane Austen’s writing–how she was able to inject that bit of social standing, politely-mannered, or insulting nature through the compliments of the day.

  3. What a great perspective. How would Jane Austen react to todays social graces or lack of?

    • Thank you Marilyn! I think Jane Austen would be appalled by certain aspects of our culture today. I think she was very sensitive to the sorts of things that could damage a reputation. Things like massive twitter attacks that completely destroy the lives of perfect strangers would be nearly beyond her comprehension. There are many improvements in our society since her day, but we most certainly don’t have better manners!

  4. Thanks for the lovely post, Diana.
    There are so many nuances that we’ve lost in 200 years!
    What I like most is when they give each other a thorough dressing down and still remain unfailingly polite (at least by modern standards 😉 )

    • I totally agree – there is something delicious about that sort of dressing down. Capturing those kinds of scenes is one of Austen’s unique strengths, in my opinion – they are so brilliantly written that it’s hard to imagine how people could possibly keep their cool and still think up such epic zingers. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Very interesting, Diana. Just about the time I think I’ve heard all the small tidbits to be gleaned from Austen’s novels, an astute reader like you points something new out! And, yes, that was a compliment. 🙂

    As an aside, I tend to think we would all picture Mr. Darcy as “tall, dark, and handsome” even if Jane had described him as average-height, blonde, and okay to look at. LOL!

    • Thank you, Sharon. And I agree that the conclusion of tall dark and handsome isn’t much of a leap, but I do love that the only physical description she gave of him was tall, and then left us the bread crumbs to get to the rest. As for “average-height, blond and okay to look at”, you could be talking about Brad Pitt, there…

    • As I mentioned above, I think it’s harder to spot something missing than something that is there; particularly something that if it WAS there, most of us wouldn’t even realize that it shouldn’t be. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Thank you for sharing a wonderful insight on this fantastic topic, Diana. You have certainly opened my eyes to dig deeper into what Jane Austen is trying to convey. I learn so many new things on Austen Authors!

    • Thank you! Austen’s writing is genius on so many levels that the deeper we dig, the more gold we find. I can’t pretend to be an expert yet, but I am an enthusiastic student, which I hope counts for something. Perhaps that’s why I frequently learn new things on Austen Authors as well. Thanks so much for leaving a comment.

  7. Very interesting and something I think many of us noticed…false compliments in JA’s books. Caroline Bingley’s fawning is notorious.

    I find it difficult to accept compliments in person. It is much easier online. I need to work on not only accepting but also saying, simply, “Thank you”.

    And Thank You for a reminder.

    I miss hearing people compliment others, just for simple things. I do try but know it is not yet a perfected art.

    • You are right – the false compliments are easy to spot in Austen’s works, and you’re right again – online compliments are somehow easier to take. Perhaps it’s because we’re not in the position of looking the other person in the eye when they say it, or we can acknowledge what they’ve said with a “like” and not have to come up with just the right words to respond. I think there’s also a sense that the online compliment doesn’t have that socially awkward moment where you wonder if they only said it because they felt like they had to.
      I believe there is something magical about a simple, sincere compliment. It really does have a certain power to it, doesn’t it? There are some people who just seem to intuitively know exactly the right thing to say. In the meantime, perhaps our best course is to just keep practicing!

  8. If I compliment you on this article, Diana, will you assume I am ‘fawning’ over you? heh heh I never thought of the compliments in JA’s books in this light and find it eye-opening.

    I always thought it odd or quaint (not sure which) when Darcy says to Lizzy at Rosings “I trust your family is in good health.” For heaven’s sake, they had not been apart very long, so how bad could things have gotten? (just kidding)

    It seems that statement was used quite often in Jane’s writings, so good manners must have required one to ask this.

    • You’re too funny, Brenda! It does put a bit of a different lens on certain aspects of conversation, doesn’t it? Darcy, in asking after the health of the Bennet family is essentially saying that her family is worthy of his notice and attention. Since he had previously pointed out their unworthiness, it conveniently is nearly an apology as well as a compliment.

    • I have found that the more I learn about cultural aspects of the period, the more nuanced and interesting Austen’s novels become for me. They are enjoyable even without such knowledge, but the more I learn, the more I love it!

  9. When I was young, my maternal grandmother was a southern dame. She told me that when people compliment you, to smile, say thank you and end it because it is easy for us to disparage our own attributes and qualities but others are entitled to their opinions. LOL As an adult, I find myself saying “cute shoes” rather than “don’t you look lovely today” because it’s much easier to accept someones approval of your footwear taste than it is that you are a lovely person. Aren’t we odd? LOL This is a very interesting piece, and I will have to re-read with a different thought process…

    • Your maternal grandmother sounds like a class act! I had to laugh at your “cute shoes” comment, because if someone were to say that to me, my natural thought process would be that I must look horrible if they had to go clear down to my shoes to find something nice to say. LOL. I think I’m giving away my insecurities!

  10. I find myself embarrassed and uncomfortable when receiving a compliment. I say thank you, but my tendency is to try to brush it off. And I apparently have “foot in mouth” disease when attempting to give compliments, so I try to just keep my mouth shut and smile at them. The “approval” message is usually received without either of us becoming too embarrassed, especially in front of others.

    • Linda, I’m the same way. While I’m secretly gratified, I have been known to openly disparage myself when faced with a compliment, especially when I was younger, although it still happens if I’m caught off guard. As for giving compliments, I’m awful at it. It can be really hard to strike a balance between too personal and too generic, although most people seem to accept “You’re looking good” with a degree of grace. I love your idea of a simple smile though. I’ll have to try that!

  11. Oh Diana, that was really nice. Though I love reading about all of the formality and elegant manners or the era, I’m sure I would be a total blunder if I ever slipped back in time. Thanks for sharing. Jen Red

    • I’m feeling a plot bunny form for a time-travel story! You’re so right though. As a society, our manners have definitely changed. (I was going to say “evolved”, but that implies an improvement…)

  12. I have always found that people respond to a compliment negatively. One thing that I made sure that my children do is to say thank you when they receive a compliment, even if they disagree with it.

    • It’s true for me too. Compliment me to my face and I struggle to get through the moment graciously. Hearing reports of a compliment through the grapevine, however, are received with warmth and good humor.

  13. Diana, Thank you. This was very interesting. I had never really paid close attention to Jane Austen’s use of compliments as weapons.

    • Once I began to understand what was meant by “A comedy of manners”, I went and read up on the topic. A whole new layer of Austen’s genius opened up to me!

  14. I very much enjoyed this article, thank you for sharing. I had caught most Caroline’s fawning….icky, but will look for others when I reread P&P and Austen’s other novels.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it Deborah. Caroline was rather sneaky – she knew better than to tell Darcy outright how very fine he looked, but she managed to ingratiate herself with less offensive compliments. She was SO obvious though! We all knew what she was after!

  15. My mother is grateful to receive your compliments and I thank you for writing this article! I hadn’t really considered this subject previously and I am always gratified to learn more of the social customs of this era as I really love both the original P&P and many of the variations I have – thank you again!

    • You’re welcome! Your gratification and your mother’s gratitude are a sweet reward for my efforts. Please accept my wishes for your health and happiness.

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